MLB

Cubs troll Nationals and laugh off all the Stephen Strasburg drama

Cubs troll Nationals and laugh off all the Stephen Strasburg drama

Did Stephen Strasburg just get guilt-tripped into starting an elimination game? Were the Washington Nationals Twitter-shamed after taking so much heat for the decision to stick with Tanner Roark after Tuesday night’s rainout? Are any of your pitchers under the weather?

“Everybody is, actually,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Theoretically, everybody’s under the weather.”

The Cubs received a Game 4 lineup card with Strasburg’s name on it late Wednesday morning, and no one could think the Nationals were trying to conduct psychological warfare.

Strasburg and super-agent Scott Boras never would have signed off on it — allowing a $175 million pitcher’s reputation to get dented like this — and now a National League Division Series could leave a black eye for the entire organization in Washington.

This was a self-inflicted wound, manager Dusty Baker trying to cover for Strasburg, confusing his bullpen days and blaming it on the temperature change, hotel air-conditioning units and how: “It’s just this time of the year for mold around Chicago.”

“Being an allergy sufferer myself, I know it’s uncomfortable sometimes,” Maddon said. “I didn’t even know that was the issue why he was not going to pitch, so whatever they choose, that’s fine. That’s their prerogative. We just have to be ready. And we’ll be ready.”

While Washington dealt with the fallout from RainoutGate on Tuesday night, Maddon took his wife, Jaye, to see Bill Murray perform with classical musicians at the Chicago Symphony Center and went to dinner at Velvet Taco in the Gold Coast neighborhood, knowing Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta wanted to throw the first pitch at 3:08 p.m. (weather permitting).

“Honestly, it doesn’t bother me,” Maddon said. “I mean that sincerely, because it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter. It comes down to playing the game. Our guys will be ready to play.

“We feel really strongly about Jake today, also, and this whole series has been really well-pitched. I’ve said it: Their pitching staff, to me, their starters, are as good as anybody’s. All five of them. Roark’s no walk in the park, Strasburg, of course not, Gio (Gonzalez). You saw what (Max) Scherzer did with a bad leg the other day.

“Whatever they choose to do, that’s fine. We just have to go out there and play. It’s about us. It’s about Jake pitching Jake’s kind of a game. And if he does that, we’ll be in good shape.”

Strasburg became a lightning rod within the industry for the way the Nationals shut him down in September 2012, a controversial move that could be interpreted as a forward-thinking approach with a Tommy John survivor or a sign of entitlement/arrogance, expecting to be in the playoffs year after year after year.

Strasburg took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of a Game 1 loss last week at Nationals Park, the victim of two unearned runs. After this switcheroo, the Cubs subbed in Jason Heyward (15-for-37 in his career vs. Strasburg) for Kyle Schwarber and moved Ben Zobrist from right to left field, hoping to avoid a return flight to Washington and move on to the Los Angeles Dodgers and a third consecutive trip to the NL Championship Series.

“I have no idea what’s going on or how bad Strasburg felt,” Maddon said. “But, again, it doesn’t matter. For me, none of that matters. It’s Jon Jay, Kris Bryant, (Anthony) Rizzo, etc., playing our game today, and Jake pitching his, and that’s all that really matters. Control what you can control. That’s probably the best way to go about your business.”

Game 4 postponed to Wednesday: Could postseason rain go against the Cubs this time around?

nldspostponed.jpg
USA TODAY

Game 4 postponed to Wednesday: Could postseason rain go against the Cubs this time around?

It’s no longer “if the rain comes,” as the Beatles sang. The rain is here.

What is supposed to be a lengthy downpour throughout the Chicagoland area started Tuesday evening and postponed Game 4 of the NLDS, pushing things back to 3:08 p.m. Wednesday at Wrigley Field. So the Cubs, just a win away from advancing to their third straight NLCS, will have to wait another day to go for a clinch.

But while last fall’s postseason rainstorm was a welcome sight for the Cubs, this time around the inclement weather could wind up going the opposite way for the North Siders.

They seemingly dodged a bullet when Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker announced that Tanner Roark will still be his team’s starting pitcher for the now-rescheduled Game 4, a surprising move considering Stephen Strasburg — who no-hit the Cubs into the sixth inning in Game 1 of this series — would figure to be ready to go on regular rest.

But with Baker making some comments about Strasburg — and much of his team — being “under the weather” due to changing temperatures inside and outside of their Chicago hotel, apparently the guy who struck out 10 Cubs batters this past Friday isn’t as ready as he seems. That means the Cubs get another crack at a pitcher who while still good isn’t the elite arm that Strasburg is.

Still, the nearly 24-hour shift in Game 4’s start time could have drastic effects on the remainder of the series.

The Cubs had seemingly all the momentum after winning Game 3 in thrilling fashion on Tuesday, momentum that now comes to a screeching halt, not all that dissimilar from the ceasing of the Cleveland Indians’ roll during last fall’s World Series. After Rajai Davis’ home run threw a wrench into Game 7, Jason Heyward’s clubhouse speech became a legendary moment in Cubs lore. This time, it’s the Cubs who have to sit and cool off while waiting for weather to pass.

The Nationals, meanwhile, get time to try and warm up their bats. Joe Maddon, like his counterpart in the opposite dugout, is sticking with his scheduled starter and will throw Jake Arrieta in Game 4 on Wednesday as he planned to do Tuesday. An argument could be made that the Cubs could have turned to their Game 1 starter after how magnificent Kyle Hendricks was in Washington. But the Cubs are equally confident in Arrieta to go out and get the job done as he battles back from his hamstring issue.

“Listen, Jake's really primed for this opportunity,” Maddon said before the rains came Tuesday. “He's done a great job of rehabbing his leg. He feels very good arm- and leg-wise right now. I'm real eager to watch him play.

“I just feel good about where Jake is right now physically and mentally, because he is. He's mentioned how great his arm feels, also, based on the rest, too. So you have the combination of resting his arm, resting his leg.”

But if the slowed momentum means the Cubs don’t win Game 4 on Wednesday, this series could dramatically swing, not just because Strasburg would await in Game 5 but because the Cubs could see another unfriendly pitcher on the mound in Max Scherzer. Scherzer took a no-hitter into the seventh in Monday’s Game 3, and he vowed to be available to pitch out of the bullpen in Game 5. So if the Cubs drop Game 4, then Game 5 becomes a tall task with the Nationals’ top two pitchers waiting.

So while rain worked in the Cubs’ favor last postseason, this time around, rain could make things a lot tougher.

The rain has come. And we only have to wait a day to find out what kind of effect it will have.

Jon Lester already delivered on free-agent promise with Cubs: Can Max Scherzer do the same for Nationals?

Jon Lester already delivered on free-agent promise with Cubs: Can Max Scherzer do the same for Nationals?

If you worked for a billionaire family, would you recommend signing Jon Lester or Max Scherzer for the future? If your season depended on it, would you rather have Lester or Scherzer on the mound?

The Cubs and Washington Nationals already answered those questions after the 2014 season, committing $365 million combined to two different aces at two different points in their construction projects, making the free-agent decisions that helped shape this National League Division Series.

Both franchises are pleased with the returns on the investments – and aware of the checkered history for pitchers with nine-figure contracts. But only Lester has looked out from a Grant Park stage at the endless sea of people and announced into the microphone: “How about this s---?”

The Nationals are still waiting for their first ever playoff series win – much less a championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in a city where the Senators last won the World Series in 1924.  

All those dynamics make Scherzer’s hamstring “tweak” – in the right leg where he pushes off and generates so much power – such an X-factor on Monday in a Game 3 that will leave one team nine innings away from elimination.    

“I feel like I’m good to go,” Scherzer said. “Hey, we’re in the playoffs. Every game is a must-win. This is going to be a crazy atmosphere here at Wrigley. I can’t wait to toe the rubber.”

Coming off a fifth straight fifth-place finish, Lester vs. Scherzer wasn’t much of an internal debate in the team’s old Clark Street headquarters.

Lester had formed solid relationships with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and the Cubs executives knew which buttons to push during the recruiting pitch after their years together with the Boston Red Sox.

The Cubs already had an in-depth understanding of Lester’s medical history and clubhouse reputation and an appreciation for a smooth left-handed delivery they believed would help him age gracefully.

[MORE: With time running out at Wrigley, Jake Arrieta chases another World Series ring

The Red Sox insulting Lester with a lowball offer in spring training and shipping him to the Oakland A’s at the trade deadline opened his eyes to the world beyond Fenway Park and exempted the Cubs from having to pay a draft pick as compensation on top of the six-year, $155 million contract.

“For us, such a big part of that process was our comfort with Jon as a person, as a competitor, as a teammate,” Hoyer said. “That was sort of our first big commitment in free agency. Without knowing Jon so well, it may have been a different calculus.

“But given that relationship, it just made the most sense to go after the guy we respected and knew as well as you’re going to know any free agent.”

Scherzer is a baseball unicorn, the outlier stretching beyond the preconceived notions about his violent delivery and when he might break down, making at least 30 starts in nine straight seasons and working toward a third Cy Young Award.

The Nationals knew all about Scherzer’s bulldog mentality, because general manager Mike Rizzo had overseen scouting when the Arizona Diamondbacks made him the No. 11 overall pick in the 2006 draft. Super-agent Scott Boras – who represents Scherzer and several other high-profile Nationals – also has an unusually close relationship with principal owner Ted Lerner.     

Scherzer believes he can will himself through 100 pitches and overpower a Cubs lineup that outside of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo is 5-for-44 with one RBI and 15 strikeouts through two playoff games against Washington.

“The thing I admire the most about Scherzer is he’s constantly evolving, improving pitches, developing pitches,” Hoyer said. “The best guys in any sport continue to get better and better each season.

“Jordan evolved his game and ended up with the fadeaway. In every sport, you think of different examples of a guy who’s really willing to make changes. And I think Scherzer is that guy.

“Every time he starts, you watch him compete and you feel like this is a guy who lays it all out there every single time.”

Scherzer is also 33 years old and guaranteed four more seasons on a $210 million megadeal that contains a significant amount of deferred money. It may not be now or never for the Nationals, but the window won’t stay open forever, and you never know if you will ever have a better opportunity.  

“In this day and age, there’s not much that guys don’t hear about,” Lester said, “with social media and MLB Network and ESPN and all this other stuff. Yeah, I’m sure it was in our heads. We all knew about it. It’s hard to run away from it.

“The guys that signed here – that was the reason why we signed here – to break that curse and win a World Series for the city of Chicago.

“On their side, I don’t know if it’s in their head. I know for us, every day, you heard about a goat or you heard about Bartman or you heard about a black cat or 1908 or whatever.”

The questions won’t stop until the Nationals deliver in October – and it’s hard to see that happening if a “tweak” compromises everything that turns Scherzer into Mad Max.  

“You’ve got to eliminate that stuff and go out and play the game,” Lester said. “The game does not change. In the postseason, yeah, it probably speeds up. (But) once you step on that rubber, it’s still 60 feet, 6 inches. You still have to execute a pitch. You still have to have good at-bats and catch the ball.

“That’s kind of how I’ve always looked at it. And you try to eliminate the goats and all that other stuff.”